What are the Characteristics of an Essential Oil?

Kristyn Bango aromatherapy dosing education essential oil essential oils inhalation precautions puro co safety undiluted oil usage volatile oil

Essential Oil Characteristics


It seems like essential oils are everywhere these days, and their popularity is growing like wildfire. In 2007, when I started making soaps, I didn't know anyone using essential oils in their daily life. In my experience, they were mostly the things of hippies, spa, and the occasional soaper. Today I think most of us can think of at least one person who uses essential oils or sells them. As the home use of essential oils increases and people become more interested in natural health, we see growing information on how to do that.

Some excellent information is available to help us start living a healthier, more natural lifestyle. Unfortunately, there is hazardous information with real long-lasting and sometimes irreversible side effects. A quick Google search yields hundreds of uses for that little amber-colored bottle you just picked up from the health food store or a friend. Depending on the oil, you might find just as many cautionary tales. It may be challenging to differentiate what is accurate when sorting through it all. You may wonder what exactly is in that miracle bottle that seems everywhere. How do you decide which of those 100 ways, if any, are safe to use? Unfortunately, many online resources are myths or misinformation passed around as truth. Whether done by a company marketing the product or a well-meaning person with a misunderstanding of the subject, it's crucial always to cross-reference the information you come across. Personal education is our best defense against improper use.

My one piece of advice before you open that bottle of essential oil is to learn everything you can about the product you are about to use from multiple reputable sources. All your information should not come from a single person or a company that makes a profit from the product you're about to purchase from them. 

Some questions to answer for each essential oil:

How should it be used? 

Who is it safe to use it on? 

What are the potential side effects or contraindications? 

What is the proper dilution - because every oil is different. 

What is a reaction, and how does it look? 

What are sensitization and phototoxicity, and is that potential risk for this oil? 

What is the best method of delivery to achieve the results I am looking for (inhalation, topical, or ingestion)? 

Once you can answer questions like this about an essential oil, you're ready to open that bottle and start exploring the world of essential oil uses. 

Instead of another way to use essential oils, start with what is qualified as an essential oil. With this knowledge, we can better understand how amazing and powerful they are and make informed decisions on how to use them safely. 

Let's begin and find out what is in these little bottles of magic beyond the smell. 

Characteristics of Essential Oils:

Essential oils are highly concentrated substances, which make them very potent. Depending on the oil, it can be 100 times more concentrated than the plant matter.

Example: It takes over 8 million jasmine blossoms to create 2.2 lbs of essential oil. Handpicked jasmine blossoms are harvested during a small window of time, making them a scarce and challenging oil to extract. When choosing your oils, the availability of the oil will play a role in the price. An oil like jasmine will be costly, while citrus oils will be much less due to their availability and ease of extraction (easily expressed essential oil is in peels of citrus fruit). Beware of prices that look too good to be true. Many floral oils such as rose, neroli, and jasmine are expensive. If a company sells them cheaper than the average, that is a red flag. 

Essential Oils are not genuine "oils" like olive oil or coconut oil. They are liquids containing volatile aroma compounds of a plant. The chemical diversity of essential oils is what provides their biological activities, i.e., antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects. These volatile oils disperse quickly into the air. Although named "essential," they are not required for the plant's survival; however, they may benefit the plant. When you brush up against a lavender plant in the garden or peel an orange, and the smell dissipates through the air, the plant releases its essential oil. 

Aromatic plants produce essential oils. All essential oils come from a specific part of the plant. Lavender buds or the peel of an orange, for example, but not all plants produce an essential oil even if they have a scent. 

Example: blackberries - we may find the smell and taste of a blackberry appealing, but it does not contain volatile oils, and therefore no blackberry essential oil is produced. 

Essential Oils are lipid-soluble. They can not be distributed or dissolved in water. The only way to disperse or dilute them is in fat/oil or wax and sometimes sugar syrup or alcohol. Essential oils in water are not considered diluted. 

Example: Essential oils in a bath. Suppose a random amount of essential oil is dropped directly into the water. In that case, it will float on the surface and may absorb into the skin undiluted with all the potential side effects and risks that go along with that particular oil. A safer and more effective option is to mix those oils with a carrier and add them to your water. Doing this will ensure the diluted oil comes in contact with your skin. 

A note of dilution. The acceptable dilution rate is different for every oil and can change depending on factors such as age and health.

Essential oils vary in composition from year to year and season to season. Factors that can affect the variability of the plant include the environment, such as soil type, climate, location grown, and when the plant was harvested. The extraction method used on the plant material can also affect the end product. Knowing this is important because an essential oil, even from the same supplier, may smell slightly different from batch to batch and doesn't always indicate adulteration. 

To be sure essential oils maintain their efficacy and safety, use the lowest dilution to achieve the desired effect. Because essential oils are so potent and concentrated, they should not be applied neat or undiluted except in specific cases for a set amount of time and under the supervision of a licensed professional. These people have received training and certification in aromatherapy or aromatic medicine through a reputable school specializing in these fields. If you wouldn't take pharmaceuticals licensed professionals didn't prescribe, then essential oil should be respected similarly. Familiar plants are often considered safe, but even the most gentle oils like lavender can cause sensitization. Peppermint and lemon are some essential oils I commonly see misused and overused. Common or natural don't automatically mean safe.

In a society where more can often seem better, this is not the case regarding essential oils. Using too much oil can sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect. An example is that some essential oils have a calming effect when diluting correctly and can become a stimulant when dosing increases. Alternatively, essential oils are very personal. What is calming to one person may be stimulating to another. Using more oils does not increase the benefits but does increase the risks! Sometimes, an effective dilution can be as little as .5%. That is why it's crucial to understand essential oils as individuals.

Understanding what are essential oils are and how they work is the first step in learning to use essential oils.  If you are ready to learn more check out this post on Herbs vs. Essential Oils.

You can also check out our pre-blended essential oils in our Aromatherapy Blend Roller Balls


Focus Aromatherapy Blend


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